December 2004, Pt. 2 of 2 [Pt. 1]
OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus – Peter Serkin, piano – RCA Red Seal Classic Library 82876-62316-2, 54:43, 67:48 (2 discs) ****:
Recorded in l973, this is one of the early works of Messiaen, but it shows all the qualities of his later music – nearly atonal harmonies mixed with reminders of French Romantic and Impressionistic music, rhythms trying to break free of the regular pulses, and delight in bird song. The 20 Gazes Upon the Infant Jesus stands along with Sorabji’s works as one of the longest single keyboard works in the repertory. The 20 sections each represent the gaze of a different onlooker of Jesus in the manger – God the Father, Angels, Magi, etc. There are returning musical theme devices representing God, the Star and the Cross. The symbolism is deeply Catholic, but the work can also be listened to as an amazingly diverse and contrasting musical experience in an abstract sense. Serkin was only 25 when he made the recording and it is a breathtaking feat. The new remastering brings the sonics up to the high achievements of the music and performances.
– John Sunier
Brahms and Friends = BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 23/SCHUBERT (arr.Brahms): 16 Laendler/JOACHIM (arr. Brahms): Overture to Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Op. 7/SCHUMANN: Overture to Goethe&Mac226;s Hermann and Dorothea, Op. 136/SCHUMANN: Konzertstueck, Op. 86
Duo Egri & Pertis
Hungaroton HCD 32003 71:08 (Distrib. Qualiton)****:
The two Hungarian musicians comprising Egri and Pertis began their partnership in 1994, and while they have not achieved the stellar repute of the Labeque sisters, they may even surpass them for sheer audacious virtuosity. Their motif for this superb disc is the music and the musicology of Johannes Brahms, who edited the piano music of Schubert, even incorporating themes and harmonic procedures from the Vienna master into his own music. The 16 Laendler, D. 366 captivated Brahms, and he arranged them for four-hand performance – likely with Clara Schumann. They roll out effortlessly, singing in slow triple time or flashing quickly in a kind of heat-lightning.
The Brahms Op. 23 utilizes a theme Robert Schumann penned around the time of his attempted suicide in 1854. A pensive meditative tune, it allows Brahms ten variants to imitate the Schumann style, even to the point of alluding to the maerchen Schumann created in pieces like his Op. 99 Bunte Blaetter. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) remains one of the great esteemed violinists from 19th century Hungary. The 1855 Henry IV Overture is rather thickly conceived in a three-part form, rather a natural texture for the Brahms four-hand arrangement. Schumann’s 1851 Overture to Hermann and Dorothea is a swirly piece periodically interrupted by strains of the Marseillaise, consistently interrupted by triplets and cadenza fantasies. The 1849 Op. 86 is fairly well known as a Concerto in F for 4 Horns. The arrangement for two pianos is Schumann’s own. As a motor-piece of some power and occasionally intimate grace, it makes an effective display for two pianos. I cannot honestly say that I would gravitate to anything but the Brahms Op. 23 out of musical need; but the level of accomplished finesse in each of these renditions is sensational.
SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956; Quartet-Movement in C Minor, D. 703
Guarneri Quartet Leonard Rose, cello
RCA 82876-52310-2 54:53****:
Another addition to RCA/BMG’s Classic Library series, this ingratiating performance of the great C Major Quintet of Schubert comes from sessions split between February and May, 1975. The nervous 1820 Quatettsatz was recorded 23 December 1970. The Guarneri Quartet cut its teeth at my alma mater, Harpur College, SUNY, in the mid-1960&Mac226;s, just after their tutelage with the Budapest String Quartet. One of the nice aspects of their residency was their rehearsals of the major repertory of Beethoven, Bartok, and Schubert and occasional discussion with selected invited students.
The Schubert Quintet then is a product of about ten years&Mac226; the homogenous ensemble accompanied by one of the colossal American cellists, Leonard Rose (1918-1984). In an interview with Bernard Greenhouse, cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio, we discussed Leonard Rose: “Leonard always wanted to be a superstar of the cello,”quipped Greenhouse. „”He never attained it but he tried hard enough. He worked on his tonal projection constantly, trying to master a seamless sound of pure beauty. He was an intense guy; but whether he was ever really happy with his playing and with career I am not so sure.” If a certain melancholy of spirit informs this performance of the Schubert C Major Quntet, it is well appropriate, since the work possesses a lyrical dolor of unsurpassed mastery. Rose and the Guarneri take a literalist, unsentimental approach to this knotty work, whose occasional sojourns into dual rhythms can be beguiling and labyrinthine at once. The C Minor Quartet-Movement is played very quickly, so it passes as a kind of shadow, a portent of the B Minor “Unfinished” Symphony. Arnold Steinhardt’s first violin is in high gear in this reading. A polished, solid pair of Schubert readings all the way by thorough professionals.
RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43; Corelli Variations, Op. 42; Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22
Nikolai Lugansky, piano Sakari Oramo conducts City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Warner Classics 2564 60613-2 73:32 (Distrib. WEA)****:
“Big hands for big music” is one critic’s response to the playing of Nikoali Lugansky, the 1994 winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition, whose recording of the Rachmaninov First and Third Concertos with Oramo has already gleaned for them an award from CHOC du Monde de la Musique. The music of Rachmaninov claims Lugansky as a natural acolyte of the composer’s style; and this disc brings us all of the major opera in variation form the composer crafted 1903-1934.
The Paganini Rhapsody, with its simultaneously improvisatory and balletic treatments of Paganini-style etudes in a three-movement format, is so familiar that it merely becomes a matter of who can most prettily play the A Major Variation 18. Lugansky and Oramo do a nice job, with lush strings and a big swell in the crescendos. The Corelli Variations of 1931 are to me more palatable than the 1903 Chopin Variations, the latter based on the C Minor Prelude that no less beguiled Busoni. The Corelli come off as a series of virtuoso etudes-tableaux on the folksong La Folia, a tune Kreisler had played with Rachmaninov&Mac226;s accompaniment. Raxhmaninov was also involved with Liszt’s treatment in his own Spanish Rhapsody. The 5th variation of the Corelli re-echoes chords we hear in the “Red Riding Hood” Etude-Tableau, Op. 39, No. 6. The Chopin studies, grouped in a four-movement patttern, a device of both Liszt and Saint-Saens, seem too academic for my taste. Even Lugansky, who really gets the fur flying in the final group at Variation XIX, cannot maintain the tension throughout the arduous maze of these efforts. Great piano sound, though, courtesy of engineer Louis-Philippe Fourrrez.
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in c Major, K. 467/BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Geza Anda, piano Karel Ancerl conducts Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Mozart) Eugen Jochum conducts Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amseterdam
TAHRA TAH 536 75:26 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi)****:
Hungarian virtuoso Geza Anda (1921-1976) remains a special artist for those collect keyboard masters. A pupil of Dohnanyi and d’Albert, and also of composer-theorist Leo Weiner, Anda possessed a luminous, refined sound quality and sensitivity, especially ni the music of the romantics, as well as in Bartok and Kodaly. Only a small portion of his work with EMI has returned for CD; relatively meager, too, are the DGG inscriptions he made in solo repertory, as in the Schubert B-flat Sonata, which was a calling card. What we do have, for instance, the Bartok concertos with Fricsay, and the occasional Testament reissue or Ermitage recital from Italian-Swiss Radio, have become precious manna for those who cultivate Anda’s refined art.
Tahra now issues two towering collaborations: the Mozart C Major Concerto–the same piece which launched Anda internationally through its use in the movie Elvira Madigan as part of the 1962-1969 cycle he did with the Camerata Academica of Salzburg–is given to us in a performance with Ancerl from 4 March 1970. The Brahms D Minor Concerto, which conductor Jochum went on to record commercially for DGG with Emil Gilels, is taken from a Concertgebouw concert 1 March 1967. It was through friend and colleague Clara Haskil that Anda approached the music of Mozart; and their work in the 2-Piano Concerto with Galliera still has not returned to CD. The C Major has a long line, fluid rubato, and some truly exciting music-making the solo cadenzas, which are uncredited but may be either Anda’s or by Weiner himself. The Toronto Symphony sound is not particularly gracious, but the orchestral tutti are luxuriant and full-bodied in spite of the occasionally thin acoustic. The Brahms is one of those lyrically Herculean affairs, and each movement seems to gain interior momentum, until the horns can hardly keep up with the frenzy of the soloist. When the French horn rolls forth for the finale’s riffs into the march-like episode prior to the coda, we are thoroughly beguiled by the interplay of piano and ensemble. Many think of Geza Anda as a piano legend whom cancer took from us much too early, and these performances bear out that esteemed assessment.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor/RIEGGER: New Dance, Op. 18b/HOVHANESS: Mysterious Mountain, Op. 132/CRESTON: Toccata, Op. 68
Leopold Stokowski conducts His Symphony Orchestra
CALA CACD0539 73:17****:
Produced in association with the Leopold Stokowski Society, this is yet another in Cala’s series of immensely significant releases of live concert materials by the inimitable Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977). This program derives from 25 September 1958, when the Contemporary Music Society marked Stokowski’s 50th anniversary as a conductor. The eminent colorist chose to present the US premier of Vaughan Williams’ last symphony. The composer had been inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the solemn deterministic novel whose bleak setting at Stonehenge provides a fateful denouement for the hapless Tess. Vaughan Williams employed his innate sense of programmatic coloration, the same he had applied to his Antarctic Symphony, here using Fluegel horn and three saxophones. A strange amalgam of buoyancy and stark, barbaric harmonies invests this work with an eerie sensibility of desolation and romantic yearning. Percy Grainger wrote of Stokowski’s performance that the “exquisite beauty of this immortal work struck me as being ideally realized.”
This reviewer has enjoyed the music of Wallingford Riegger ever since he heard Alfredo Antonini perform Dance Rhythms at a concert at NYC’s Lewisohn Stadium. The New Dance (1942) is the finale of a large balletic piece for an ensemble that includes piano and drums. Sounding a bit like the music of Revueltas, the piece has verve and menace, maybe a touch of the headhunters in Hollywood’s classic Five Came Back. The Hovhaness Mysterious Mountain (1955), which Stokowski both commissioned and premiered in Houston, is a wonderful color-piece Stokowski also gave in Atlanta. The composer’s use of chant-like motifs and oriental harp and percussive effects always makes a shimmering impression. The double fugue is carried off with aplomb. Paul Creston’s music, too, has had nothing but a pleasant effect on this reviewer’s senses; one favorite is the Dance Overture as played by Cantelli and the New York Philharmonic. The 1957 Toccata was commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra. The combination of jazzy rhythms and brilliant, percussive colors proves irresistible to the Stokowski palette; and his orchestra–made up of New York Philharmonic players and some independents–shines with that Stokowski Sound which remains one of wonders of the musical world.
The booklet contains a wonderful posed shot of Stokowski and the composers (excepting Vaughan Williams) looking at one of the scores to be performed on the program. Essential Stokowski and essential collectors’ fare.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”; Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93; Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral”
Sheila Armstrong, soprano/Anna Reynolds, contralto/Robert Tear, tenor/ John Shirley-Quirk, baritone/London Symphony Orchestra Chorus/Carlo Maria Giulini conducts London Symphony and New Philharmonia Orchestra (Pastoral)
EMI Classics 7243 5 85490 2 72:39; 7232****:
Classic readings of Beethoven by Carlo Maria Giulini (b. 1914), whose 90th birthday has triggered any number of reissues with various orchestras. Frankly, I would like to see more materials from the archives of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Pastoral Symphony with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded over the course of early January-April, 1968, has had the best recommendation I know: conductor David Randolph, having heard a broadcast of the discs over WQXR-FM in New York, told me in conversation how deeply moved he had been by Giulini’s conception. I too find the reading much in the Bruno Walter tradition – big ideas and hearty playing. The merry scherzo has an earthy humor that more literal-minded interpreters miss. Barry Tuckwell’s French horn resounds in the midst of warbling winds and droning strings. A bit of marcato phrasing with Giulini goes a long way. The last two movements, storm included, are quite a paean to Nature, a thoroughly pantheistic celebration in regal orchestral splendor.
The Eighth Symphony, recorded in November, 1972 comes off a bit over-refined for my taste; I prefer a less polished cast for its rough mockeries of classical forms and procedures. Giulini’s has the high gloss I associate with the Karajan Beethoven. The warm, plastic lines, the suave dynamic transitions, these are the distinctive marks of any Giulini interpretation, especially when the orchestra is in full sympathy with his direction. The clarity of the bass lines in the fugato section of the opening movement is a study in itself. The playful interior movements and finale bring out any number of individual colors, and the flute solos stand out, even in the midst of the mock-military progressions of the Allegro vivace, which Giulini treats as a kind of exalted gallop with airy episodes.
The Ninth dates from Kingsway Hall sessions from November, 1972. The influence of Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s various readings on Giulini’s conception is rather obvious in the studied, cumulative power of the orchestral crescendos, the fine tuning of the winds and horns to shifts in metric accents. The attempt to balance the opening movement’s combination of harmonic tension and lyrical striving is almost painful to hear. Resonant tympani playing in the Scherzo accompanies the alternately light and pungently deft flexions of the motor impulse; again, the LPO flutes seem to sail over the ensemble while the French horn and oboe intone beautifully in the Trio section. A former viola player himself, Giulini is always meticulous to interior details, always insistent on the cantando or singing, expressive line. So the double-theme-and-variations of the Adagio, with its French horn, winds, and pizzicato strings blending in a series exalted transformations, unfolds before us. The last movement, a microcosm of the previous music with chorus and soloists, opens with a rush of energy and a kind of swagger once the basses grumble out the hard-won theme. The four singers in glowing tones, the orchestra in burnished sound, the finale propels itself to heroic proportions all the while maintaining the lyrical pulsation that marks Giulini’s special gift. Quite a fine account, noble and salutary, as is Giulini’s wont.